Faith Matters

Bishop Donal McKeown: 'Catholic schools are delivering for communities in 21st century NI'

As Catholic Schools Week is marked, and amid continuing debate over the future shape of education in Northern Ireland, Bishop Donal McKeown argues that Catholic schools are delivering for communities in the 21st century

Pictured with pupils from Long Tower Primary School at the launch of Catholic Schools - Delivering for Communities are: Bishop Donal McKeown, chair of CCMS and CSTC; Gerry Campbell, chief executive CCMS; Fintan Murphy, chief executive CSTC; Pat Carville, vice-chair of CCMS; and principal Joyce Logue. Picture by George Pennock.

THESE are changing and challenging times for all involved in education. We all want to do the best we can for young people. But our system fails to prepare many of them for success and gainful employment. And in an increasingly fragmented society, schools are expected to deal with a growing list of issues.

These are some of the questions that the NI Assembly's 'Independent Review of Education' has to deal with. And they are inviting people to be involved in that discussion.

Catholic schools are the largest single sector in Northern Ireland - and we have to be aware of tough questions that we have to face. Today we have to wrestle with major questions:

In a society where there is a considerable desire for more united communities, how do we ensure that our schools actively contribute to that and do nothing to perpetuate division?

  • In a racially more diverse society, how do we celebrate diversity and go beyond the outdated tribal Catholic-Protestant stereotype?
  • In the context of an agreed core curriculum, how can Catholic schools offer a distinct worldview?
  • In a more secular society, how do we continue our contribution, even though some wish to remove any role for religious beliefs from the public sphere?
  • In a society where too many young people do not experience success in their education, how does the Catholic sector (the highest achieving schools in NI) share its experience and insights?
  • In a society that is increasingly divided by confrontational identity politics, how can Catholic schools build social capital by emphasising the community's role in education?

Firstly, as regards the challenges facing Catholic schools, we have to deal with an oft-repeated assumption that there are 'bad segregated schools' and 'good integrated schools'. The picture is much more nuanced.

Some of the officially 'integrated schools' have a good community balance – and some have a very poor level of mixing.

Indeed, some of the schools with the most integrated communities are Catholic schools that are proud of their identity – such as Saint Columbanus College and Saint Malachy's PS in Bangor and Loreto and Dominican Colleges in the Coleraine/Portstewart area.

For so-called 'newcomer children', 52 per cent of them have opted for a Catholic school. Indeed, perhaps the most racially mixed schools in NI are Catholic schools in Dungannon and Craigavon.

Thus, Catholic schools have shown that they can be leading contributors to a more integrated educational provision.

Secondly, the simplistic 'segregated v integrated' dichotomy implies that there is the only way forward, namely making all school 'integrated'. There is a spectrum of ways in which we can promote a less fragmented society, starting from where we are.

Furthermore, this alleged dichotomy assumes that there is only one form of differentiation that affects schools and children. We will not have a shared future unless we deal with the reality of 'academic selection' by schools at 11.

Thirdly, diversity and choice are key elements of a modern society. It would be very strange indeed if we were to promote a 'right to choose' in everything – except parents having choices in the education of their children. Furthermore, various human rights conventions give parents the right to choose an education that is in conformity with their religious and philosophical convictions.

Fourthly, in every other jurisdiction, Catholic schools are chosen, partly because of the academic quality of their output and partly because they espouse a particular way of looking at the world.

Indeed, Pope Francis wrote in 2004, when he was still a bishop in Argentina, if in our schools we do not develop a different way of being human, a different culture and a different society, we are wasting our time.

The challenge for our Catholic schools in a modern society is not to become more like everybody else but actually to offer a distinct faith-based worldview and way of life. Otherwise, we have little to offer.

Thus, when it comes to the Independent Review of Education, the members face hard questions.

How do we deal with underachievement? How do we get best value for the money spent in schools? How do we promote respect for diversity?

Our children deserve nothing but the best quality we can offer – and Catholic schools expect only to have a place at the table and not to be told to sit in the corner with a dunce's hat on.

Catholic schools have set out their vision for Catholic education in the new publication Catholic Schools - Delivering for Communities. It articulates the ethos and values at the core of all Catholic schools and promotes the exemplary service provision from all staff within the sector.

This week, as we celebrate each of the daily themes of Catholic Schools Week 2022, it is only right that we remember and encourage all staff working diligently in our schools to raise standards and cultivate a positive, equitable, diverse learning environment for all.

I encourage everybody to get involved in the discussion, making your views known to your local politicians and to the Independent Review.

Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry and chair of both the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service.

'LIFE TO THE FULL'

THE theme for Catholic Schools Week 2022, which continues until Sunday, is: 'Catholic Schools: Living Life to the Full'.

Each year during Catholic Schools Week, families, parishes and schools, north and south, are invited to participate in a week of celebration of Catholic schools reflecting on their contribution to the local school community as well as to the common good to society.

Themes already explored this week include: 'Living Life to the Full with God'; 'Living Life to the Full Together' and 'Celebrating Being Together Again'.

Today's theme is 'Living Life in Wonder and Awe', while tomorrow explores 'Living Life and Facing the Future'.

More information at catholicschools.ie.

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